Tudor Tourists: Sightseeing in Elizabethan London

We tend to imagine Elizabethans going about their day - working, trading, doing housework and, if their work and status demanded it, visiting the royal court to negotiate or network on business. 

But, just like us, it wasn't all work and no play to Londoners in the sixteenth century. In their spare time, they went to the theatre, listened to music and played board games. There was of course the bear baiting and executions to watch, too, which we consider today being quite grisly and cruel. But Elizabethans also went sightseeing for fun and entertainment. 

The diaries and chronicles left behind by Tudor visitors such as Thomas Platter, Paul Hentzener and Lupold von Wendel show that, just like today, one of the big draws of Elizabethan London were the royal palaces and important buildings. Visitors marvelled at St Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London and Whitehall Palace. At Whitehall, some of the queen's private dresses and jewels could also be viewed. 

Tower of London, from the Poems from Charles, Duke of Orleans, c1500. Public Domain, British Library.

The glimpses we get from their accounts show that tourists weren't seen as a nuisance, or a rarity. They were actually welcomed by guards and warders of buildings, where, as you pushed a penny into their palm, they would show you around on a personal tour. 

Thomas Platter, visiting the Tower of London in 1599, writes that, on arrival "we were then put in charge of a guardsman, who was to act as guide round the sights." Platter talks about visiting the armoury, where he was shown, amongst other things, "King Henry's shield... which was mighty heavy, also his iron helmet, breast plate and yellow gauntlets," telling us that Henry VIII's recent reign was a draw to tourists, just as it is today. Platter also marvelled at "The Duke of Suffolk's lance or spear, which he used at France at the joust... so large that one man had enough to do to lift it." He also saw an 'incredible' number of arrows, and was even allowed to take one home as a souvenir. (1) 

Platter's accounts tell us a number of things about sightseeing in London in the late sixteenth-century. First, the many remarks about objects being very heavy and how they could be lifted indicates that visitors were permitted to touch and handle the artefacts, and even take some home with them. This is also true with visitors to Drake's ship, The Golden Hind, which was moored at Greenwich. So many people broke off pieces of the iconic ship to take as a souvenir that it was remarked in 1618 that only the keel was left standing. (2)  

But all these personal tours and souvenirs came at a price. Platter tells us that the 'gratuities' that he pays are to each of the wardens in the various rooms he visits. He pays to enter the room to see Henry VIII's armour, then again to see some firearms in another room and again to see an expensive tapestry later on. In total, Platter pays eight gratuities throughout the tower, each of which costs him three shillings. This quite expensive day out equates to around £160 in today's money. (3) Modern day tourists can probably sympathise with Platter, as he writes, almost wearily, towards the end of his visit: 'and having now for the eighth time made a gratuity...". 

That the payment was made to individual wardens - and they didn't come cheap, at around £20 per room in today's money - this suggests that payments were received as a perk of the job, rather than any evidence of the organised, admission-system we see today. 

While many tourists today are drawn to the Tower of London for the sites and stories of the infamous executions, Platter doesn't discuss these - probably because executions were still very much an everyday part of Elizabethan London - but does say that he visited the dungeon and "we saw the ropes used to rack malefactors." 

As well as royal residences, visitors could also enjoy Mr Cope's house in London, which is described as a 'fine house... stuffed with queer foreign objects in every corner'. There, Thomas Platter and his guest, the physician Herr Lobelus, observes objects such as 'the bauble and bells of Henry VIII's fool' and a 'unicorn's tail' as well as a 'thunderbolt dug out of a mast which was hit at sea in a storm'. Bearing in mind the Elizabethan's fascination with the Americas, following Sir Walter Raleigh's recent settlement of Virginia, they also saw a fan made out of a single leaf, Indian stone shears, a Madonna made from Indian feathers and a long, narrow Indian canoe with oars that was hung up on the ceiling. They also saw an embalmed child. Fans of Shakespeare will notice the resemblance in the line in The Tempest: "Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." (4)

Raleigh's voyage to the Americas increased Tudor interest in Native Indian culture
photo: British Library, Public Domain

Just like today, Tudors enjoyed street entertainment. Stowe comments that "in the yeare 1581 there were to be seen in London two Dutchmen of strange statures, the one in height seven foot and seven inches... a comely man of person, but lame on his legges (for he had broken them with lifting a barrel of beere." He goes on: "the other was in height but three foote, had never a good foote nor any knee at all and yet could he daunce a gilliard." Stowe comments that as well as dancing, this second chap also shot arrows to a target, juggled with cups, sang and performed a 'flourish with a rapier'. (5) Royal processions, pageants and other public events were also a draw for the London crowds. (6)

Elizabethans, providing they had the money to pay for them, would have enjoyed a range of private, guided tours to see royal residences and other important buildings in London. There were private collections - as long as you knew in which houses to find them - that housed various objects - I'd have loved to have seen the thunderbolt in Mr Cope's house! - along with items brought back from the Americas, which would no doubt have fascinated  the Tudors. 

Was any of this a surprise to you? Let me know your thoughts! 

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4. Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 2 scene 2 also mentioned in: Ian Mortimer - A Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, Chapter 40.
5. Charles deLoach. Giants: A Reference Guide from History, the Bible and Recorded Legend. pp103-104
6. Ian Mortimer - A Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, Chapter 40.

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  1. I would never have imagined that ordinary people were allowed to look round royal residences! I guess that only a small percentage of the population would have been able to afford to pay for tours like these? I wonder if some people would have been turned away even if they were quite wealthy because of discrimination (for example on the basis of class) - maybe only people who spoke or dressed a certain way would have been considered appropriate visitors to palaces or other important buildings so lots of people were in effect excluded?

    Thank you for another fascinating history lesson!


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